Wednesday, January 31, 2007

New NW Neighborhood Discovered: Coladams Circle

My wife and I live down the hill from Meridian Hill, not in Dupont Circle, but not quite in Columbia Heights or Adams Morgan, and definitely not Logan, and too far west for Shaw, but maybe the U Street corridor depending on the map you look at, and very near the Strivers Section Historic District but not in it, and I’m not sure exactly where Cardozo is, so maybe we’re there? It’s really hard to tell people, quickly, what neighborhood we live in. So I’ve come up with a new neighborhood name just for our condo (not our condo building, mind you , just our actual apartment): Coladams Circle.

Creating your own neighborhood opens up a world of possibilities, ranging from street festivals (Coladams Circle Day!), for which we are entitled to police protection, free balloons, all kinds of ethnic food, and some sort of frozen desert product, like Italian ice or sherbet (I think, I’ll have to check on the last one), to various city grants to help fund the activities of the newly formed Coladams Circle Citizens Association, which of course will present strong opposition to every proposal brought before the ANC, once we figure out which ANC we’re actually in.

I’d also like to apply for money to start the Coladams Circle Business Improvement District, because, let me tell you, business in the neighborhood is woeful, nearly non-existent. There’s not even a liquor store (unless you count the cabinet where we store liquor, which, I guess, you’d have to) or a Starbucks, which is surprising since we drink A LOT of coffee here in Coladams Circle. The only commercial venture making any money at all in Coladams Circle is the Swear Jar, but as our “community improvement” projects finish up, it, too, may see a drop in business.

And finally, I can now apply to the city to get free trash bags and hand tools for use during our soon to be inaugurated Coladams Circle Neighborhood Clean-up Day. The city will even send over a truck to haul all the trash away!

The only thing left is to lobby Metro to add Coladams Circle to a Metro station name. Apparently, it’s pretty easy: Adams Morgan got their name on the Woodley Park station, even though it’s definitely NOT in Adams Morgan, and both Fairfax and GMU are piggybacking on Vienna’s station (having made the trip countless times to GMU via Metro, let me tell you, you’ll be in for a rude surprise and a long, long, looooong walk if you fall for THAT one!) I can see it now: U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo/Coladams Circle. Then, I could answer any cabbie’s “where to,” with “to Coladams Circle!”

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Hubris of a Do-It-Yourselfer

My wife and I have done a lot of work on our condo (and are still doing it). What we lack in actual skills and no-how, we more than make up for in naïve, hubristic over-confidence and bull-headed oxen-like determination. These can take you a long way.

For instance, over the summer, when everyone else was enjoying weekends at the beach and nights out on roof decks holding brightly colored drinks in stemmed glasses, we spent every waking moment for 4 weeks putting in a marble floor. We learned about things called “floor leveler” and “margin trowels” and “cementitious thinset mortar”, and successfully used a “wet saw” without losing any necessary digits. Even after most people would have given up and called in the pros, we pressed on, thinking we’d be done in only a day or two more. A day or two more quickly added up.

Since then, we’ve learned why people buy new kitchen cabinets instead of simply painting the old ones (because one average-sized kitchen cabinet, with one door, has approximately the same surface area as a Coopers Mini and takes just about as long to paint), that buying materials at Home Depot takes as long as doing the actual work, and that everything takes 3 times as long as you think it should. Except for putting in baseboard (thank God for Paslode nail guns!), which took only 1/3 of the time I had allotted for some reason. I suspect I did something wrong and that I’ll walk in some time to find my baseboard has “failed”, as they say in the trades, with catastrophic results.

We also learned that people’s reactions are not up to our standard when we show off our place. No one swoons when they see our newly-installed and freshly painted built-in bookcases (all of which, of course, we did ourselves); no one breaks down in tears of unbelieving joy because of the vast expanse of wall tile we put in the bathroom. Don’t they understand that we had no idea what we were doing, and still have no idea how we did it, and that it still came out looking great? That’s a 3 piece baseboard we mitered together, people! Don’t you understand the significance of that?

So we keep laboring on, doing things we have no business doing: installing sinks and toilets and crown mold, wiring under-counter and indirect lighting, replacing “J-traps”. And we have to be content with the work’s own rewards, which so far have been callused hands, tiny but extremely painful cuts on my fingers, exhaustion, and a rather nice paint fume-induced light headedness. But, being the eternal optimists that we are, we’re sure that the rewards will get better as time goes on.

Monday, January 29, 2007

DC Crime: Philly Inquirer vs. Washington Post

Why does the Philadelphia Inquirer have more insightful reporting of DC’s crime statistics than any local paper? This article from January 14 is better than anything the Post or Times or Examiner have published. It brings up points I wrote about in a post at the end of December: the economic and demographic changes taking place in DC (gentrification) helped lower the crime rate, and DC is exporting its crime problems to other local jurisdictions.

Admittedly, the Inquirer article only touches on other problems that gentrification causes: loss of affordable housing and disruption of communities, problems which the Washington Post seems to obsess over. But the article does balances its good-news story with a litany of DC’s problems: “drug trafficking, illegal firearms (in a city that bans handguns), reluctant witnesses, and a steady flow of ex-cons returning to the streets.”

The Philly piece also presents some fascinating statistics, which our hometown papers weren't able to dredge up during their coverage of the drop in the DC crime rate:

In DC, “the number of men ages 18 to 24 - those mostly likely to kill or be killed in any city - has fallen by a third in five years, according to those same estimates. This has come as Washington's overall population has grown.”

And “the District has about 80,000 more jobs than it did in 1998, the region 500,000 more.” In that same time period, Philadelphia lost 15,000 jobs.

These numbers beg some questions: where did all the young men go? Who has taken all those jobs? Near the end of the article is this paragraph, something similar I’ve never seen in any local paper:

“Even in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Washington, police say, young people now grow up knowing lots of adults who have succeeded in legitimate careers, not through drug dealing. So officials and activists can preach the value of staying in school and out of trouble without fear of sounding ridiculously out of touch.”

Is any of this true? Well, considering the Philly paper has no dogs in DC’s political fights, which are boiling over with issues of gentrification, race, class, and crime, it’s probably more or less objective and therefore trustworthy.

Maybe DC is doing better than it was when I first moved here, not just for those with money, but also for those less fortunate. Maybe some of those 500,000 new jobs went to people in our poorest neighborhoods, and Mayor Williams’ ideas of economic growth were correct. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for good news.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Hemingway on Writing in the Morning

"When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. . . .When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have e made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again..."

"Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail."
--Ernest Hemingway

I used to do this. Actually, before it was light, just as the sun was coming up, in my bedroom in my little house on Oakland Street in Arlington. I need to do this again. It's a good way to write. I felt energized the whole day. That early, I didn't even know what I wrote until I looked at it the next morning. And then, I didn't remember it again because it was so freakin' early! Eventually, I had all these pages of manuscript, good stuff, created by me, but somehow magically. The editing and rewriting I could do in the light of day. But the writing, in wee-hours.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why I love DC

There’s a lot of negativity out there about DC. People love to hate DC: the politics, the egos, the police, the city services, the dating scene, the crime. The hate comes from people who live here (there are plenty of local DC-hating bloggers) and from people who don’t, as this Post article illustrates. I could go on for some time about this article, but why bother? For the most part, the writers are striking poses: down-homey-straight-talker, exasperated tax payer, etc. None of them, of course, know the first thing about the DC we live in. And they mostly complain about the politics, not realizing that real people live in DC, too.

Usually, when I tell people from somewhere else that I live in DC, they invariably ask “where?” I’ll repeat, calmly, “Washington”, having heard it all before. And they respond “no, I mean, where exactly? In Arlington? In Alexandria? I have a niece in Bethesda. Do you live in Bethesda?” When I explain that no, I actually live in the city of Washington, they say, sympathetically, “oh, I’m sure that’s nice, too.” I even had someone say “really? I didn’t know anyone actually lived in Washington. Well, except for, you know…” I didn’t ask for further clarification.

There’s a lot of hate out there. I try not to let it bother me. People are generally ignorant, and that’s not their fault. I love DC because I know it, the great architecture, the food, the bars, the monuments, the museums, the book stores, Springtime. I have friends here. I met my wife here. We even ate at Ben’s the day we got married.

But I’m also a realist: I’ve gotten crazy tickets for things I didn’t even know you could get a ticket for (a public space violation? What the hell is that?) I’ve torn my hair out dealing with the building permit office and the zoning office: they do Kafka proud. There’s the terrible customer service at CVS, the lines at the DMV and at the one car inspection station, the complete randomness of what the garbage collectors will and won’t take, the motorcades that disrupt everything.

However, even with all this, DC retains a humanness: if you talk to them nicely enough, the cops at your local police station just might give you a temporary parking permit for a month, instead of a week; the woman behind the register at The Market Lunch once took change out of her own pocket to pay for my crab cake when I was 50 cents short; the adjudicator of my “public space violation” ticket waived it on a technicality, basically because I was clueless as to why I even got it. We’re all in this together, these people seem to believe, in this big, senseless, crazy city, and we gotta help each other out.

I guess loving DC is like loving a big, dysfunctional family. I can complain all I want, but I’ll close ranks with my fellow Washingtonians (even city workers) when someone from outside insults DC.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Capital City Market/Florida Market

If you’re interested in development issues in DC, and you’re interested in a great place to get fresh produce, check out the new Capital City Market blog. It’s hosted by Richard Layman, who has another blog about urban development, and by Inked, who writes Frozen Tropics, another great blog about urban spaces and DC. They’ve been kind enough to post my recent Current Newspaper article about the Capital City Market on the new blog.
I love this city because of places like the Market and blogs like these.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A DC Fashion Statement

DC has the reputation of having terrible fashion. And with this tiny bit of snow, I can understand why. Out come the child-like footwear worn by so many federal workers (and some non-feds as well, I’m sure): strange lug-soled shoes, Timberlands, old sneakers, or full-on hiking boots, worn with business attire. I’m not sure where these people are coming from, or how they are commuting to work (by dog sled, perhaps?).

It’s not so bad, I suppose, to wear such shoes on the rare occasion of actual snow. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people wear such shoes, or athletic shoes of one strain or another, nearly every day. Or “soft” dress shoes, like my mother used to force me to wear to Catholic school: rubber soled, leather (maybe) that won’t polish, ugly.

I graduated from all such footwear for professional dress years ago. I now only wear “hard soled shoes,” loafers and such. I live in the city, I work in an office, and I’m a grown-up, so I dress like a grown-up. But I see so many middle-aged men who work in offices just like mine dressed like they are off to Sister Angela’s class. I half-expect that they are wearing tough-skins and clip-on ties as well. Why don’t grown-ups dress like grown-ups? I have the requisite collection of Birks and flip-flops and hiking shoes and Sambas, but I don’t wear them to work!

I have loafers that I’ve worn for years, and they are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned. I’ve worn them to both Paris and Rome, where I walked miles and miles a day, without any discomfort. And I wear them all around DC, all the time. So I was thrilled when my brother bought me a pair of rubber galoshes for Christmas, the kind you slip right over your shoes. These things are terrific! They are the SUV of city footwear. No more dancing over puddles or refusing to go out in the snow, or, worse, wearing Catholic school shoes to the office. Now, I just walk jauntily along, anywhere I please, in any weather. I suppose I’m an anachronism. My wife thinks I may be Highlander, as my actions and my ability to recall arcane historical facts belie an chronological age of well over two hundred and fifty years. Rubber overshoes may have gone out with the rotary telephone and sock garters, but I say that quality and usefulness never go out of style!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Notes on PEN/Faulkner, Gimmicky Writers, etc...

We went to see E.L. Doctorow on Friday night at the PEN/Faulkner reading hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library. I like the PEN/Faulkner reading series. As it turns out, however, I don’t like E.L. Doctorow’s writing. He’s part of a generation of American writers who are taken very seriously by critics and English professors, and are also commercially successful. Writers like Don DeLillo, Tom Wolf, Tom Robbins, and John Irving. They all suffer from the same problem: they write about stuff that they want us to believe is profound, but when it comes right down to it, is either trite, not insightful, or totally lacking in meaning.
For instance, Doctorow read a short story narrated by a man who had joined a cult. While smoothly written, the story had very little to say. It ends with the cult leader running away with all the cult’s money and the narrator’s wife. Oooooo, cult leaders are immoral hucksters! What a revelation! Never saw THAT coming! The problem, of course, with this conclusion is that, not only doesn't it add anything to humanity’s understanding of the universe, it’s actually, well, wrong. Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite, all died with their followers. What Doctorow wrote was what all we non-cult-followers wish to believe about cult leaders: they don’t actually believe what they preach; they are simply greedy con artists, when in fact the evidence proves otherwise.

Other examples of what I'm talking about: Tom Wolf makes the earth-shattering revelation in I Am Charlotte Simmons that college-age women HAVE A SOCIAL LIFE! Who knew? No one born in the last 40 years would be shocked by anything that Charlotte does.

Don DeLillo ends the prologue of Mao II with this: “The future belongs to crowds.” This sentence is so utterly devoid of context, concreteness, and even a peripheral relationship with meaning, that one may think that it must therefore be DEEP, so deep that I, with my tiny intellect, just don’t get it. In fact, it’s simply bad writing.

“Gimmicky” is the word I would use to describe all these writers. They pick something that has a particular hold on the popular imagination: cults, gangsters, girls-gone-wild, abortion, hippiedom, and then deliver exactly what their audience expects.

Regarding my own writing: Last week was a good week here at aportablesnack: my work poem was picked up by Wonkette, my post about DC Restaurant week was picked up by The Express, and someone actually posted my poem on Joel Auchenbach’s blog page. (By the way, poems are supposed to be grammatically incorrect!) Plus, I finally recieved a copy of my article about the Capitol City Market that was published on December 13 in the Current Newspapers (Georgetown Current, Dupont Current, Foggy Bottom Current, Northwest Current). Unfortunately, it’s not posted anywhere on-line. And finally my friend arjewtino was picked up by Gridskipper. A precedent setting week!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Twenty-somethings: Greedy and Shallow

For Shame USA Today. What a piss-poor reporting job!

USAToday reports that a new Pew Research Center poll (which USAToday co-sponsored with McNeil/Lehrer Productions) finds that Generation Y’s “top life goals are to be rich (81%) and famous (51%).” Implying, of course, that 81% Gen Y'ers have getting rich as their number one goal. When I read this, being a few years older than Generation Y (people born since 1980), I felt a surge of moral superiority course through me: how shallow, I thought. How naïve. How stupid.

But then I read the actual poll question: “Which of the following do you think people in your generation or age group think is MOST important…” The choices were such things at “to get rich,” “to be famous,” “to be leaders in their community,” etc.

Anyone see a problem here besides me?

This question is not asking what is MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU, it is asking what you THINK is most important to EVERYONE ELSE. HUGE DIFFERENCE!

People generally assign negative motivations to other people. I would probably have answered the question the same way: getting rich is the most important thing to most OTHER people in my generation; not for me, mind you. I want solve world hunger, help old ladies across the street, and feed little fuzzy animals. But no one else does.

Sorry, Gen Y'ers. I apologize for jumping to conclusions. It seems to me that Pew Research Center and McNeil/Lehrer Productions and USAToday have some sort of agenda to smear Generation Y. Probably because they are run by people like me, who think negative things about other people and love surges of moral superiority.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

DC Restaurant Week: Mmm...Bad Food

I told my wife we should participate in Restaurant Week. Not as diners, mind you. But by offering a prix fixes menu and setting up folding tables in our living room. Because, let me tell you, she’s a better cook than most chef’s in the city. Especially during Restaurant Week. (Let’s face it, most chefs participating this week are at the tops of their games.) That, along with the long waits and shoddy service, and I know we could do better than most!

Good food doesn’t have to be expensive, anyway. Sometimes it is. And sometimes you can spend 10 bucks on an entire Peruvian chicken (plus steak fries and slaw) and actually look forward to dying in a car accident on the way home, because you would be sure to die happy. Good food is good food. It’s just that so few people know what it is anymore, and assume that if you pay a lot for it, you’re getting it. So here’s a list of my favorite non-Restaurant Week food in DC:

Best Thai: The Old Siam on Capitol Hill. Not expensive, great service, incredible food, just simply a well-run place.

Best Italian: AV Ristorante Italiano, New York Ave and 6th Street NW. Serves wine in stemless water glasses, huge portions, unpretentious. They simply know what they’re doing.

Best hotdog: Ben’s Chili Bowl (of course)

Best Burger: Five Guys. Nothing more needs to be said.

Best Falafel: Amsterdam Falafelshop, Adams Morgan. Ditto.

Best fried pork, pupusas, and tamales: Tortilla Café at Eastern Market (not to be confused with Tortilla Coast, also on the Hill). They serve on Styrofoam plates here. I’d crawl over broken glass for the fried pork.

Best food, ever, anywhere, period: El Pollo Rico, North Kenmore Street, Arlington: I think they put crack in the chicken. I’m serious. Because there’s no way that chicken, steak fries, and coleslaw can be this good.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Work Songs (and poems)

I’m not much of a poet, as I will soon prove. But I have been known to write poetry now and then, usually about my place of employment. Usually AT my place of employment. I don’t know why, but I seem to be inspired at work to wax poetic more than anywhere else.

However, the resulting poems end up as thinly-veiled rhyming diatribes against my cubicled fate. My experience writing these poems has led to the following syllogism:
(1) the best poems are funny; (2) complaining is funny; (3) rhyming is funny; (4) the modern American cube farm is funny. Ergo, a rhyming poem that complains about work is bound to be funny.

So here goes. I wrote this years ago when I worked in a tiny cube for a huge on-line company based in Tyson’s Corner, where my job was to cancel user accounts on the night shift. Interesting people worked the night shift. (I’m sure they said the same thing about me.):

Ode to a Lung Fluke

Sometimes I hate to go to work
knowing that is where you lurk
with you horrible disease
that no coughing will appease.
What is it that effects your lung?
What is it that is in there clung?
A fluke, maybe, that makes you gasp?
Or do you just prefer a rasp
to any other horrid sound.
Think you it the most profound?

I hear you cough up god knows what.
It makes me sick right to the gut.
Then see you in the dining hall
spit a large phlegmatic ball
into an unconcealed rag
which you display as if to brag,
“look what I expectorate!
Perhaps I’ll fling it on your plate!”
It fairly makes me want to puke.
Please extricate that god damn fluke!

I wonder at your mental state
when you can’t articulate
even simply to say “hi”
as a coworker walks by.
You scare me, to be plain and clear.
Some day I expect to hear
Your name broadcast to all the land
because you snacked on someone’s hand,
or liked your food prepared the best
when freshly torn from human chest.

Or maybe you will gain your fame
by practicing your rifle’s aim
on old coworkers who may have said
something about your unclear head,
meaning only to sympathize
with your constant running eyes
and a nose that does the same
I did not mean your mind lame!

When you finally do crack
Please don’t lay it on my back
or take out any undo stress
on one who every sneeze did bless.
That constant clearing of you throat,
I know there was an antidote.
Annoying was the only word,
that I ever overheard,
used in reference to you
but never from my lips it flew.
I was always well aware
from the nature of your stare,
that you might pull out a gun
and then kill me just for fun.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Ugly Betty Ford?!

The other night, we were watching President Ford’s state funeral at the Capitol on ABC. When the funeral was over, after an hour of seeing former first lady Betty Ford moving through the rather rigid ceremony with dignity and grace, we suddenly see this flash up on the screen:

Who at ABC thought THAT was a good idea? It wasn’t “cut to commercial,” then a local news break, then a wrap-up from the funeral. Not even a cut to “This has been an ABC news special report” voice over. Instead, it was pretty much a final shot of Betty Ford being escorted from the rotunda, and then HUGE PINK WORDS that said “UGLY BETTY” for a LONG TIME. Like 5 or 8 seconds, longer than seemed necessary for any reason. Was I the only one who noticed this?

Networks re-program all the time depending on current events. Maybe moving Ugly Betty wasn’t necessary, but a little bit of a segue perhaps?

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Book lists and such

Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the most. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. - William Faulkner

In This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald mentions how he makes lists of everything. He wonders if he’s strange. When I read that, I thought “Wow! I’m not the only weirdo out there!” I make lists of many things: to-do lists, lists of people I know, lists of trips I’ve taken (noting next to each one whether it was by car, plane, train, or a combination), lists of cities where I’ve spent the night.

I used to keep lists of all the books I read in a given year. I’d write down the date, the title, and the author. I don’t know why I did this. I didn’t record what I thought about the book. It was simply an accounting sheet. I averaged 30 to 40 books a year. I sometimes wish that I still kept such a list, but I don’t read as much as I used to. So here’s a list of most of the books that I read this year:

The Coast of Chicago, by Stuart Dybek
Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld
The Monkey Wrench, by Primo Levi
The Families Who Made Rome, by Anthony Majanlahti
The Comedians, by Graham Green
Flappers and Philosophers, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Between Salt Water and Holy Water: A History of Southern Italy, by Tommaso Astarita
Kavanagh: A Tale, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A Writer’s Paris, by Eric Maisel

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
Harvest Moon, by Carl Sandburg
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving

Boy, that’s barely a book a month! How pathetic. New Years Resolution: stop making lists.